Friday, October 28, 2011

Windows 8 Developer Preview - Start screen
When we reported the availability of the Windows 8 Developer Preview, we promised our thoughts and screenshots would follow. We regret the delay, but we’re finally fulfilling that promise. We’ll get the obvious out of the way first – the Metro UI applied to traditional computing is a refreshing breath of air in a world where such refreshing takes are extremely rare to come by. Windows has remained more or less the same from the early days of Windows 1.0, with menu bars, icons and windows. The Metro UI takes things to the next evolutionary generation. If you’ve tried out Windows 8 for yourself, or read the previews online, you would know that the traditional Windows desktop interface also lives on in some form. We can’t wait to tell you what works and what doesn’t in this Developer Preview build of the next great version of the world’s most popular Operating System. Click the “Read more” link below and join us past the break.

Look and feel
Windows 8 Developer Preview - Boot options
The first thing that hits you when you boot Windows 8, is that the OS is truly graphical. The graphics engine seems to be loaded at pre-boot, as the above image will tell you. Words can’t explain the sheer delight this brings to folk like us who’ve been waiting for graphical user interface-based Operating Systems (from Windows 95 till Windows 7, in decreasing quantities of frustration) to go fully graphical. Finally, that wait is over. Continuing along into the Windows 8 OS, you’ll find that crisp text and sharp, 2D edges are everywhere – which is a good thing. The font is relatively large, making it really comfortable to use for living room computing (Note: Normally, when we sit away from the monitor, we use Magnifier to make out onscreen text. In the Windows 8 Developer Preview, this was necessary only when switching to the traditional Desktop).
Windows 8 Developer Preview - Booting 01  Windows 8 Developer Preview - Booting 02  Windows 8 Developer Preview - Boot options 1  Windows 8 Developer Preview - Boot options 2  Windows 8 Developer Preview - Boot options 3
Windows 8 Developer Preview - Boot options 4  Windows 8 Developer Preview - Loading  Windows 8 Developer Preview - Lock screen  Windows 8 Developer Preview - Lock screen, sliding up  Windows 8 Developer Preview - Lock screen
Windows 8 Developer Preview - Welcome screen  Windows 8 Developer Preview - Welcome screen, Accessibility options  Windows 8 Developer Preview - Welcome screen, On-Screen Keyboard  Windows 8 Developer Preview - Welcome screen, On-Screen Keyboard - Fade  Windows 8 Developer Preview - Welcome screen, On-Screen Keyboard (NAV)
In the above images, you should be able to decipher that the first screen displayed when you boot into Windows 8, after configuring it for the first time, would be the lock screen. On the lock screen, a simple swipe up gesture would bring you to the Welcome screen. Since we did not have a touchscreen device to test this on, we used the mouse – and this worked just fine. A click at the bottom-most portion of the screen, and a simple flick of the screen upwards brought us to the Welcome screen. Wow. Just wow. From the pre-boot options, to the lock screen, to the Welcome screen and the main Start screen for the OS – everything is a visual pleasure and a delight. No amount of viewing photos/screenshots or reading reviews can make you feel the impact of this change for the Windows OS – it’s pretty amazing. What’s more, the drool-worthiness of the OS isn’t just for tech-lovers or geeks; even non-geeks (folk around the house) loved it and were blown away by the new visual theme, which brings us to the all new…

User Interface paradigm (Metro, Start, traditional Desktop)
Windows 8 Developer Preview - Start screen
Metro. Remember that word. If you didn’t know the word before this, you’ll want to now. Metro is the name of the User Interface that was built for Windows Phone 7 (based on the foundation laid for the Zune series of MP3 players). The Metro interface has now been brought front and center into Windows 8, which makes the whole experience smooth and sleek. Basically, the Metro UI uses clean lines, 2-dimensional “Tiles” which can automatically update content (hence the name Live Tiles), and zero stuff like borders, title bars, etc.
Windows 8 Developer Preview - Start screen, arranging Tiles
If you don’t have a touchscreen-based device, you can use the mouse to drag the scrollbar left and right at the bottom of the Start screen. You could also use the mouse or your finger (on a Touchscreen) to press and hold the Tiles on the Start screen and move them around (as depicted above). Currently, Microsoft has included limited customizations to the Start screen – but they’ve demoed and promised a lot more as this version of Windows progresses through it’s development stages. The single most jarring concept or paradigm shift for Windows 8 is the absence of a Start button. You may not realise it till you use Windows 8 (we surely didn’t) but the fact that you don’t have a Start button to click to access your Programs, and recently accessed Apps, to search for software, to Shut Down the PC is very discomforting. It takes quite a bit of getting used to.
Windows 8 Developer Preview - Search bar
Windows 8 dispenses with the traditional Start menu, dispersing its functions across various portions of the OS. The Start-search functionality has morphed into the very slick and useful Search bar that you see in the image above. The Search bar is accessed from the Settings bar that shows up on the right side of the screen, and you can select the type of data that you want to search through – Apps, Settings, etc. Microsoft mentioned during the BUILD conference that Apps would be able to plugin to this Search bar, so that they show up in the Search bar list as searchable items. For example, if a music App is written with the Search bar functionality built-in, you could use this Search bar to select the music App and then search for content within the App. It’s an excellent way of taking search forward – for the current generation of web-connected services and devices, this type of search is intuitive, fast and fulfills the requirement.
Where we see Microsoft needing to put in more work, is the traditional Desktop interface. There are several times when you are forced to access it – when you want to access the full set of options in Control Panel, perform file and folder management tasks, use Windows Media Player, access the Task Manager and so on. Certain tasks have two versions – a new Metro version and the traditional version. Check the screenshots below to see what we mean.
Windows 8 Developer Preview - Control Panel (Metro UI)
Control Panel, Metro UI
Windows 8 Developer Preview - Control Panel (Traditional UI)
Control Panel, Traditional UI
Windows 8 Developer Preview - Internet Explorer 10 (Metro UI)
Internet Explorer 10, Metro UI
Windows 8 Developer Preview - Internet Explorer 10 (Traditional UI)
Internet Explorer 10, Traditional UI
The new Metro UI-based Start screen makes it very simple to change your user preferences. A simple click on your User tile at the top-right corner of the Start screen would do. Many other Apps, including the Remote Desktop App, have been rewritten to reflect the Metro UI. The Windows Store from which Metro Apps for Windows would need to be downloaded and installed is yet to go live. You just get a Coming soon sign if you try accessing it now. These concepts can be viewed in the screenshots below.
Windows 8 Developer Preview - User Tile options  Windows 8 Developer Preview - Remote Desktop App  Windows 8 Developer Preview - Windows Store

Switching between Apps (Goodbye Aero Flip 3D; Hello split-screen)
Switching between applications when you’re in the Metro interface is easy – you hold the mouse cursor to the left-most extreme edge, and you get a thumbnail preview of which App is next in line to be switched. From there, you can just drag the App to the center, and voila! – you’ve switched Apps. It’s simple and intuitive. But that’s just half the fun that is provided with Windows 8.
Windows 8 Developer Preview - Split-screen 01
Instead of dragging the App thumbnail to the center, if you drag it to a general area on the left and hold it there, you can get a splitscreen view of two Apps, as shown in the above image. On the left, we have the traditional Desktop with four open applications, and on the right, we’ve got the Piano App built for the Metro UI and included with the Developer Preview. Want to see more of the traditional Desktop and less of the Piano app? Simply click and drag the vertical bar separating the two towards the right, and you get the two Apps split as shown below.
Windows 8 Developer Preview - Split-screen 02
Notice that the Piano App has completed changed it’s orientation to fit better into this small space. This is another function that developers who build Metro Apps can use – build a side-view for the App so that when you splitscreen the App, it still retains functionality (unlike the traditional Desktop we saw in the first screenshot above – it’s basically useless. Clicking on any of the four thumbnail windows would throw you out of the split-screen mode and into that specific App’s window in the traditional Desktop interface. Pressing Alt+Tab or Windows key+Tab (in Metro interface) simply shrinks the entire window inwards, and brings the next App in line, up front.
Overall, App switching is improved greatly. It both looks good, and works well – like most of the changes in Windows 8. Speaking of these changes, we’ve still got a few tweaks to mention…

Modern flourishes and tweaks
Windows 8 Developer Preview - Windows Explorer
The Ribbon UI has found it’s way to every bit of the traditional interface in Windows 8. It definitely makes things easier for the average user, but power users (or Geeks) may want to do away with the Ribbon interface in key places like Windows Explorer. We didn’t find it to be too much of a pain, but the fact that there is no Metro App for handling file and folder tasks is, erm, unexpected. The copying functions have vastly improved, as we reported earlier, from previous versions of Windows. It feels like a huge leap – one function that is sorely missed when we went back to our ordinary Windows 7 machines.
Windows 8 Developer Preview - Task Manager
As mentioned earlier, the Task Manager in Windows 8 is available only in the traditional Desktop interface. That doesn’t mean that it hasn’t changed; the Task manager has improved vastly from Windows 7 (and other previous versions of Windows. Here, the Task manager shows colour-coded usage of various system resources, such as CPU, Memory, Hard Drive and Network – for each application. The Services/Processes/Applications segregation has been cohesively unified into one screen. The Task Manager also shows you which of the Metro Apps have been opened and are currently Suspended. That’s right; Metro Apps can’t be exited completely. They save the state that you last used the App in, and then return to the same state when you access the App again. We can see a lot of confusion going forward, since you’ll have to keep in mind the Apps that would be suspended and those that wouldn’t; if you make a mistake here, it could cost you quite a bit in terms of data or productivity.

Bugs, Misses
There’s one huge bug that kept cropping up for us; whenever we try accessing certain files or folders, there was a script error message dialog box shown – anywhere from 5-15 times, everytime the error occurred. But this is a pre-Beta Developer Preview. For that milestone, the OS works great. You definitely can’t (or shouldn’t) use this on your main system yet. That would be too crazy.
Some stuff that we’d like to see Microsoft improve upon as we edge closer to release would be allowing us to just flick the Start screen with the mouse pointer, instead of forcing us to use the scroll bars. Seriously – it’s a natural way of interacting with the new Start screen. We saw the Start screen, and we immediately tried flicking it left and right by clicking and dragging the background. This is exactly what is available if you use finger-input; we see no reason why the mouse should be left out of all the flicking/swiping fun.
We would also like to see many more of the traditional Windows applications rewritten as Metro Apps. This includes the Task Manager, the full set of Control Panel options, Windows Explorer, Windows Media Player, Paint, MS Office and so on. We would like more options and customizability for rearranging and grouping Tiles, which Microsoft says is coming.

Final thoughts
Windows 8 Developer Preview - Lock screen
To say that Windows 8 takes things to a new level would be an understatement. The OS has been through complete rewrites, in many sections. Yet, many sections are still lacking. We are still waiting for Microsoft to comment on the interoperability of traditional applications and Metro applications, the various versions that they are going to release (not all versions of Windows will have all the features, as per their usual stance) and so on. Microsoft is yet to even name this version of Windows; Windows 8 is a codename that may not be the name of the final shipping product. Though there are so many questions and doubts on how the final product is going to shape up, we are sure that this is a step in the right direction for Microsoft. Compared to Apple’s recently released OS X 10.7 Lion for their Mac line of computers, the next version of Windows seems to have lots more in store. We only can wait with bated breath as Microsoft plods through the motions of a Beta release, an RC release and the fully final RTM release. For now, we can say that Microsoft is on the road to finding the “zen” of modern computing.


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